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Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran

2.6.8       December 27: Ashura

Ayatollah Montazeri’s seventh day of mourning, another traditionally important day in the forty-day mourning period, fell on December 27, which was also perhaps the most important religious day for Iranian Shi’as—Ashura. The tenth day in the Islamic month of Moharram, Ashura marks the death of Imam Hossein, who was killed in his struggle against the tyrannical Caliph Yazid.[269] Each year, Iranians commemorate the death of Hossein with street processions, self-flagellation, and passion plays known as Ta’ziyih in which Imam Hossein, dressed in green, is martyred.

The convergence of these symbolic events and the continued suppression of dissent may have resulted in what became the most significant and violent demonstrations since June. Although traditionally, combatants set aside hostilities during the Islamic month of Moharram and especially so on Ashura, the regime continued to violently confront demonstrators in the streets and used lethal force to deal with the massive crowds.[270] 

On Tasu’a, the day before Ashura, about fifty members of the Basij and/or another vigilante group entered Jamaran Mosque in Tehran and interrupted a sermon by Mohammad Khatami about Ashura.[271] The violence continued on Ashura as hundreds of thousands flooded the streets in cities throughout Iran. Protests and clashes occurred in Mashhad, Tabriz Arak, Babol, Najafabad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Ardebil and Orumieh.[272] Video footage from Tehran and other cities show demonstrators clashing violently with security forces. They capture scenes showing demonstrators resisting arrest, being beaten by Basij and riot police, and being shot and run over by security forces.[273]

Hundreds were arrested around the nation. In Isfahan, during a clash at Hossein-Abad Street, over 400 demonstrators were arrested and transferred to Isfahan prison.[274] In Tehran, 1,100 people were reportedly arrested and transferred by bus to Evin prison and other detention centers.[275] In Najafabad, officials reportedly declared martial law.[276]

Ali Habibi-Mousavi, Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s nephew, was shot by a .45 caliber bullet that entered his chest and exited his body. [277] Reports indicate that his killing was targeted and that the 43-year-old father of two was not participating in the demonstrations. His body and those of four others who died on Ashura were taken by security forces for purposes of autopsy, and state media suggested a variety of different theories regarding the “mysterious” murder. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the Kayhan publication, accused Mousvai of having assassinated his own nephew.[278]

Images of deaths and severe injuries were captured on cell phones and quickly spread over the Internet. For example, one video shows a police vehicle running over protestors.[279] However, the number of victims is difficult to establish. The Islamic Republic News Agency announced that 37 people were killed on Ashura.[280] Four deaths were reported in Tabriz,[281] and by the end of the day in Tehran, five deaths were confirmed by the opposition, including that of Mousavi’s nephew. Deputy Police Chief Radan claimed that the police and security forces did not use lethal force on Ashura.[282] However, state television initially claimed that ten members of anti-revolutionary terrorist groups were killed and that these groups also killed five others.[283] The police then claimed eight deaths in Tehran, and then changed that number to seven after determining that one victim was allegedly a drug addict with no link to the demonstrations. Tehran’s prosecutor, Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, confirmed the seven deaths and claimed to have launched investigations.[284]

Bodies of those who died were returned to their families for burial under the condition that they not publicize the death or the cause of death.[285] Reportedly, family members of the victims were put under pressure to declare that the deaths of their loved ones were accidents.[286] Witnesses who saw law enforcement trucks run over protestors have reportedly been arrested. Police Chief Ahmadi-Moqaddam, had claimed that the truck that ran over civilians was stolen from NAJA and that the thief who was the real culprit is being pursued.[287] However, the families of those arrested have been pressured not to speak of the reasons for the arrests.[288]

As was the case in earlier demonstrations, authorities insisted that foreigners and terrorists were to blame. Heydar Moslehi, the Minister of Intelligence, blamed foreigners for backing the chaos during Ashura and claimed that some of these foreigners were arrested.[289] Two European citizens were arrested—the Swedish Charge d’Affairs and a German tourist—both of whom were later released.[290] Qolam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, Chief Prosecutor of Iran, stated that three of those arrested on Ashura would be tried for muharibih and executed promptly.[291] More ominously, Mohammad Najjar, the Minister of Interior, declared that after Ashura, all rioters would be considered muharib and would be dealt with accordingly.[292]

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